Origins and Impact of Cancel Culture

One of the most noticeable trends over the past 4 years, is that of “cancelling” people, in particular influencers and celebrities, for some perceived wrongdoing. It is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass cancelling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.”


The list of people who have been cancelled is long and includes big names right from Kanye West to President Donald Trump. In fact, it seems that anyone remotely famous has been cancelled for one reason or the other. But where does this trend originate from?


Origins of Cancel Culture

For a trend, that saw its peak only recently in 2020, it is fair to say that this worldwide trend had modest origins. While the idea of calling someone out has been there for nearly a decade, this trend became the foundation of what has now evolved into “cancel culture.” In the early 2010s, a Tumblr blog, by the name “yourfaveisproblematic.tumblr.com” became a place where people came together to discuss how their favourite celebrities were not perfect role models.


The popularity of the term “cancelled” came later through the VH1 reality show named “Love and Hip-Hop: New York”, after it was widely circulated on Black Twitter. The context in which the term was used, however, was very different from the way it is used nowadays. Initially, it was used in reference to “ending a relationship”, in contrast to its modern-day usage of “boycotting people for troublesome statements or actions”.


The modern-day usage of “cancelling” someone or “cancel culture” largely coincided with the rising popularity of the #MeToo movement in 2017, where many celebrities faced accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct. The term was used to boycott these celebrities for their actions and to withdraw support from them. In a world dominated by social media, cancel culture quickly caught on as a means of holding popular figures accountable for their actions.


Impact of Cancel Culture


While there is no doubt that cancel culture is here to stay, questions about what kind of an impact it can truly have, need to be raised. While there are a few success stories associated with cancel culture, its long-term impact can be questioned. Some of the celebrities who were cancelled include comedian Louis C.K. and author J.K. Rowling, who are prominent examples of the fact that cancel culture does not have any longevity.


Louis C.K., sexual misconduct, comedian, #MeToo, misconduct accusations
Louis C.K. Image: Getty Images

Louis C.K. was cancelled when he admitted to sexual misconduct after being accused by several women in 2017. Consequently, he was dropped by his publicist and entertainment agency, his series on FX got cancelled and many media conglomerates quickly distanced themselves from him. This prompted the comedian to take a brief hiatus before returning to stand up in 2018 and now in 2021, he is going on a 24-city comeback tour with a few of his shows even being sold out.


JK Rowling, Harry Potter author, transphobia, cancelled, Twitter
JK Rowling: Getty Images

In the case of J.K. Rowling, it can be argued that she is too big to be cancelled. Despite the huge backlash she faced over the transphobic tweets, she continues to mint money from the Harry Potter franchise and her new thriller even took the Number 1 spot in the UK, selling nearly 65,000 in a period of 5 days. Even YouTuber Logan Paul, who filmed a dead body in a Japanese forest, managed to come back after being cancelled for it.


Furthermore, its usage as a tool to attack someone, also raises several questions, especially when there is no evidence to support the claim that forms the basis of the cancellation. Many people have pointed out the toxicity of cancel culture, where innocent people are attacked completely disregarding their personal lives, often fuelled by the mob mentality that has come to dominate various social media platforms.


In many cases, people have been shamed on social media based on accusations that have no merit, that have had a profound effect on their personal lives, only for the accusations to be proven wrong at a later stage. The misuse of the collective wrath of the Internet has undermined the effectiveness of the movement wherein the numerous baseless accusations floating around have impacted innocent people.

While cancel culture is becoming one of the popular means of holding people accountable, the longevity of that accountability and the targeting of innocents need to be controlled so that cancel culture gains merit as a valid movement. But the questions of who is innocent and who isn’t, what forms the basis of cancelling someone and what doesn’t, need to be answered prior to this. In the age of the internet, this is an arduous task to carry out, but it must be done to ensure that the movement does not gain notoriety as some form of online Salem witch trials.